Rising Above Adversity, Penn Graduate Finds Calling as a Philadelphia Teacher

Louisa Shepard | lshepard@upenn.edu | 215-573-8151
Wednesday, June 28, 2017
Dominique Bynoe-Sullivan

Dominique Bynoe-Sullivan graduated from Penn's GSE in May and from Penn's College of Arts & Sciences in 2016. 

The journey for Dominiqué Bynoe-Sullivan to become a teacher has been challenging, from her home in Brooklyn to a high school in Harlem to the University of Pennsylvania.

At Penn, she initially focused on becoming a physician, pursuing a major in microbiology. But during her sophomore year she changed direction, working with faculty to choose a major in public health, with a minor in urban education.

“I loved it,” she says. “I realized I really wanted to be a teacher.”

Bynoe-Sullivan says explaining her decision to her mother was challenging, because in her family’s Caribbean heritage becoming a doctor is so prized. However, her mother, an immigrant from Trinidad who worked in retail and childcare, supported her choice. Her father, a sanitation worker, had died several years earlier.

In particular, Bynoe-Sullivan was excited by the opportunity to build on her own experiences to integrate education and community.

“A community school considers all of the children’s needs and includes health clinics,” says Bynoe-Sullivan. “There is an emphasis on social services, anything they think a child might need to live better and perform better in school.”

The urban-education minor at Penn includes four academic tracks for undergraduate students and provides a pathway for students like Bynoe-Sullivan to go on to earn their master’s degree and certification from Penn’s Graduate School of Education. All of the minor’s tracks involve fieldwork in local schools.

“Dominiqué is a great example of the kinds of Penn undergraduates we love to see, someone who cares about equity and social justice, and is attracted to teaching as a way to make an impact in the world,” says GSE Dean Pam Grossman.

NancyLee Bergey, associate director of the Teacher Education Program, was Bynoe-Sullivan’s advisor, professor and mentor and worked with her as both an undergraduate and graduate student.

Bynoe-Sullivan, Dominique 2

Dominique Bynoe-Sullivan

Bynoe-Sullivan took an undergraduate elementary science and social studies education course with Bergey, which included field work at Henry C. Lea Elementary School in West Philadelphia as well as a part-time job as an after-school program coordinator at Lea. She continued teaching there through Penn’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships. During the summers she helped teach at Philadelphia Freedom Schools.

“Dominiqué is deeply committed to urban education,” Bergey says. “She has a lot of experience in the schools and has seen the workings of schools close-up. Dominiqué has received a broad background both from GSE through our courses, and her student teaching placements.”

School has been the center of Bynoe-Sullivan’s life from her first memory of reading aloud to her kindergarten class. Although her parents did not complete their schooling, they valued education and filled their home with books.

Growing up, her life and community revolved around New York City’s Frederick Douglass Academy high school, two trains and an hour-and-a-half commute each way from her home in Canarsie in Brooklyn. She excelled, a stellar student, softball team captain and peer mentor.

She brought that drive and love of learning to Penn, her first choice of colleges.

“Dominiqué has an innate sense of treating people with respect and humanity, which is so important in our field,” says Kelsey Jones, a GSE post-doctoral fellow who taught Bynoe-Sullivan in a child-development class. “She is just the kind of student you want to work with and want to go out and teach.”

After earning her bachelor’s degree from Penn in health and society with a concentration in public health and a minor in education in 2016, Bynoe-Sullivan matriculated into the master’s degree program at GSE, working with many of the same faculty who had mentored her as an undergraduate.

A James Patterson Scholarship from the School of Arts & Sciences and another grant from GSE made it possible financially, along with part-time jobs. Last year she was an intern at Fairmount Water Works, helping to plan and manage a summit for teachers and middle school students on understanding the urban watershed.

Shortly after Bynoe-Sullivan started her master’s degree, her mother died of breast cancer. She considered taking a leave of absence, but her family insisted that she continue, and the team at GSE supported her throughout.

“I thought that if I just give myself this year to becoming the best teacher I could possibly be, that’s what each student I come in contact with deserves,” she says.

Bynoe-Sullivan’s master’s degree field placements were all in South Philly, first at a migrant education program that works with immigrant families and then at the Andrew Jackson School.

“These provided a significant contrast to the West Philly schools where Dominiqué worked during her undergraduate years,” says Bergey.

The other GSE students with Bynoe-Sullivan “benefitted significantly from Dominique’s understanding of Philadelphia and its schools,” Bergey says.

Dominique Bynoe-Sullivan graduation

Dominique Bynoe-Sullivan after her May 2017 graduation from Penn GSE. 

​​​​​​​“In a cohort-based program like ours,” she says, “we try to model what it is like to have a professional learning community. We count on each student to bring their experiences and knowledge to our group. Having spent so much time in Philadelphia classrooms and talking with Philadelphia teachers, Dominique had insights to share that her classmates did not have. This was a boon to these students.”

In May, Bynoe-Sullivan graduated with a master of science in education, with a concentration in early elementary education.

“It was hard, but it’s done,” she says. “This year has shown me how much I can take.”

In August she starts a full-time job as a sixth-grade literacy teacher at a Mastery Charter School, Clymer Elementary in North Philadelphia.

“I know she’s going to be really great,” Jones says. “Her kids are going to be really lucky to have her.”

Bynoe-Sullivan ultimately hopes to earn a Ph.D. or an Ed.D. and start a community school.

“I want to work with students and their families, giving them what they need, instruction and teachers who care,” she says. “I want to be a principal. I want to open a community school. I’m ready for it. I can’t wait to get out there.”